Reclaiming Korean Identity, Culture, and the Band that Started It All: An Interview with SunYoung Youn of KFandom Cafe Vienna

I am bursting at the seams to share this interview with you. Bursting! Because you are mere moments away from learning about the culture, identity, personal history, and life-changing epiphanies of Vienna’s one and only KFandom Cafe owner, and now dear friend, SunYoung Youn.

Some Background

Before we get into it, a brief bit of background as to how this came about:

Last April, a friend of mine said, “Hey, Holly. Do you know BTS?”

To which I replied, “What is a BTS?” 

(No, baby Holly. Just no.)

Thoroughly embarrassed for me, my friend was quick to shove earbuds in my ears. Ah, BTS is not a thing, it’s a band. A Kpop band.

A fan-made video; Turn on captions (CC); Cardi B language at 1:17 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now, being an unashamed music snob myself, Kpop had never been a genre that interested me. In fact, I wasn’t sure who all it interested to begin with. So to suddenly have Korean pop music blasting in my ears was— it was confusing. 

Jump ahead to mid-May when my YouTube feed silently suggested I watch BTS perform a Beatles tribute at the Ed Sullivan Theater. As you know, I will do anything for The Beatles, and so I obeyed The YouTube. The performance had me intrigued.
And then YouTube showed me BTS on Saturday Night Live. 

And Jimmy Fallon. 

And the AMAs.

And to the delight of my BTS-loving friend who’d tried to convert me just a month before, I raised a white flag of surrender to the world’s most popular band and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back row: V, Suga; Middle row: Jungkook, RM, Jimin; Front row: Jin, j-hope

Kpop is multi-leveled and highly complex, so I have only committed my ears and heart to BTS. But there are those who are brave to explore every part of KFandom, and such devotion requires an outlet outside of YouTube comments and Weverse, ideally, a physical location where fans of Korean pop music can get together, appreciate the music, and dance their hearts out. Such places, called Kpop Cafes, exist heavily in the east where, until recently, Kpop has been the most devoured. But given the recent shift in the west wanting in on the Kpop goodness, Kpop Cafes are popping up everywhere to answer the call.

And thanks to SunYoung Youn, Vienna has one of its own. 

Meeting Youn

I met Youn (whom I call ‘Unni’, a Korean word of endearment for ‘big sister’) in the summer of 2019 just as I was beginning my journey down the BTS rabbit hole. At the time, I was thirty, and walked in with a fellow thirty-year-old friend to check out the place. (This is relevant information.) Before us sat around twenty-five people, all under the age of twenty, enjoying Korean desserts, lattes, and spicy noodles as they watched music video after music video of their favorite Kpop bands. 
As we looked on, I felt a hand grip my arm, almost in an urgent manner. I spun around to find a sweet Korean woman with glasses observe my face then grab my other arm with the same sense of urgency. “You’re new here right?”, she blurted out. “Are you older than twenty years old?” Upon hearing my age of thirty, she cheered, pulled me in for a tight hug, and with excitement said, “Yes! I am so glad! I am forty-four! I need more adults!” 

From that moment on, we were sisters.

Interview with SunYoung Youn of KFandom Cafe Vienna

H: So tell me a little about yourself, who you are, where you’re from.

SY: My name is SunYoung Youn and I am from Korea. I’ve been here in Vienna for three and a half years. Before Vienna, I lived in Prague for five years.

About myself… Well I never thought I could be a businesswoman because I never had a specific job. My major is in painting. Fine arts. At one point, I went to New York and studied a semester at the School of Visual Arts. That’s where I learned English.
And during that time, when I was in the U.S, I felt I had a poor knowledge of my own country, my history. I was very curious about my identity as a Korean. I think because of my curiosity, I was motivated to learn about my culture after I returned to Korea. 
My experiences from other countries made me who I am now. I had several opportunities to live in other places before I got married and had kids. Once the kids arrived, all of my adventures were put on pause. For about 15 years, 24/7, my only job was taking care of my kids.

H: How did you learn more about your identity? 

SY: Well, I had this experience when I was studying at the School of Visual Arts. In Korea, students can choose to study either Western Fine Arts or Oriental Fine Arts. I chose to study Western Fine Arts, so I worked with oil paintings, things like that. You may not know this, but if your major is in Oriental Fine Arts, they use a specific, Korean style paper and Korean style brush.

And anyway, when I was in New York at the school, they asked me if I could also do my heritage’s style of painting, the Korean style, you know. When they asked me that question, I was embarrassed because I didn’t know how. So I studied the Korean style after that, and studied our history. If there was a book about the Korean philosophy, concept, identity, and culture, I picked it up. 

H: After you learned about your Korean culture and history, did you then become interested in Kpop? 

SY: Oh, no! Not at all. 

H: So, how did you go from having zero-interest in Kpop to opening a full-on Kpop cafe?

SY: Oh, it’s amazing. You won’t believe it! 

It started when I really wanted to do something for myself. I’d been at home raising kids for so long, and I wanted to make money somehow.
I spent a lot of time listening to the stories of successful people. I tried to improve my self control and mind. I used YouTube for most of that – YouTube is my teacher! I would always turn it on when I woke up to learn about how to have a positive mindset and so on.

And in 2018, I spent a lot of time listening to books on those same topics I just mentioned. The books inspired me to write out the things I wished for. And I believed if I focused on those things, it would attract those possibilities in the future. So I believed in myself, and knew I wanted to spend real time on my dreams. Every day, I wrote something. At first, it started with three sentences, but over time, it became a diary of gratitude.

*Pauses for a deep inhale and self hug before continuing*

Wow, I’ve never told anyone my specific history before! 

Anyway, I wrote, Ok I’m good at communication. I’m good at decorating. I’m creative. I love singing. I love music. Those kind of things. So when I had an idea to make a souvenir shop for Korean tourists, a friend of mine told me, “Good idea, but if you have a chance to sell BTS t-shirts, not only will you make money from Korean customers, you’ll make money from other cultures in Vienna.” 

So just her saying that is what got this [KFandom Cafe] started. Before that moment, I didn’t know much about BTS. The only prior experience I had with that name was once I was walking down with my kids, and some teenage tourists stopped me and asked, “Can we take a picture with your kids? Because you are from Korea and we are fans of Bangtan Sonyeondan!” That was four years ago when that happened.

H: Wait… So… someone stopped you in the street… to take pictures with your kids… because they’re Korean… and Korea equals BTS. 

SY: *laughs* Yes! Yes! 

So after that I asked YouTube: What is Bangtan Sonyeondan? 
At that time, their song Spring Day was the only song close enough to my style. But their performance in the 2018 MAMA [Mnet Asian Music Awards]— that was a turning point for me. Their performance was amazing and I was shocked. I researched all the history and meaning behind that particular performance and song [IDOL]. It is meaningful and full of symbolism specific to Korea.

This is the performance she’s talking about. It’s ah-mazing.

After that, Map of the Soul: Persona came out. And you know that’s after Carl Jung’s book. The book is not for teenagers! It’s deep stuff, hard stuff. It’s about the human psyche and masks we wear, our personas. And they’re [BTS] trying to get people to talk about that and think. They are focused on the human and the soul of the human.

And their concept is simple, easy: Love yourself. BTS made this easy sentence very serious, all over the world. I love that, and I feel that I should help them. I want to help them. As a Korean and as a person who wants to positively impact teenagers and others, it is necessary for me to be involved. It’s like my destiny, or something. This message of ‘Love Yourself’ is a message everyone needs here in Europe. Love yourself, find yourself, discover your shadow and your light. BTS wants to spread this message, and I need to help them do that. 

So this is the goal of the cafe. Because of BTS, I’m here. 

H: In your opinion, how has BTS impacted the Korean culture?

SY: I think before BTS, Koreans didn’t have much confidence or pride in our own culture and identity. We just followed the western style and went along with what the west said was popular. For example, ‘handsome guys’ for Koreans used to be guys like Brad Pitt. But now, it’s changing for us from the ‘macho western man’ to the ‘Jungkooks’ of our own culture. We’re realizing men, too, can be beautiful, inside and out.

And now the west is looking at us, at Korea, and wondering what we are doing. What we eat, what is Hangul, what do we wear, how do we act. And so now the west wants to be part of what we think is popular and trendy. 
And for me personally, because of BTS, I was able to realize my vision [the cafe]. They have a high quality concept which gives them a level up compared to other groups in Korea. They have their own philosophy and forward-thinking concept in their songs.

H: Did you have any specific hopes for your cafe?

SY: When I had a concept of my shop, it’s a textbook saying, but I wanted to ‘share the space.’ Because there is no place in Vienna to share Kpop and Korean culture like this. So I wanted to make a space to share it with everyone in the KFandom. 

H: Were you surprised by the number of customers your cafe attracts?

SY: Oh, yes! I was shocked. Before we first opened, thirty minutes before, there was a line out the door, down the sidewalk. Over two hundred people stood out in the cold, in January, to come into the cafe. It was so cold! And we couldn’t allow all of them, of course, to come in at once. So they had to come in in sections. 

And even before then, when I announced I would create this cafe, so many people came to volunteer. They drew characters on the walls and helped with graphics. They helped me plan the first event. On opening day, there was only one staff member who got paid by me. But over 10 people came to volunteer that day just because they wanted to be and be involved.

H: Why do you think teens come here?

SY: I don’t know. They don’t have any other place, I think. 
It’s strange, weird. Because in Korea, the age range is not only teenagers, but older people as well. 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on.

If you look at the overall phenomenon of the spread of Kpop, you can see that more than ten years or fifteen years ago, before BTS, Kpop was primarily popular in Asian countries. Then when Psy came around with Gangnam Style, we were pretty shocked by its global popularity. But I thought, This isn’t the end. Korea will again produce something or someone that will attract Westerners to us. 
I mean, we developed really fast from a poor country to a country with great potential. We collected a lot of information really fast and created something new. Competition in Korea is really, really high. It often has a negative and positive aspect to it. So the music quality grew as a result of this competition. We thought the culture is very important – our movies, art, pop music – we learned to enjoy our own uniquely created concept, and teenagers can keep up with how fast everything moves and changes.

H: What all does your cafe offer?

SY: I sell a lot of Kpop merchandise that gets imported from Korea. My husband’s job is Import/Export, so his job makes it possible for me to receive all of this. I have a lot of BTS items, but I sell other Kpop groups’ items as well. 
The feel and design of the cafe I got from my brother’s friend who has a cafe similar to this one but in Japan. So I visited it and that was helpful.

For food and drinks, I have a friend who has a Korean dessert cafe in Korea. For three days, I learned how to make Korean desserts with her. I love healthy drinks in Korea, so here we sell Sweet Potato Latte, 5 Grains Latte, Strawberry, Blueberry – not exactly European style. And we make homemade Ginger, Grapefruit, and Lemon teas. That’s what I usually drink at home or when I visit Korea.

And mochi is my favorite, favorite, favorite dessert and we serve that here. 
Also, when I had the idea of this cafe, I imagined teens eating noodles, so we have our Korean Ramyan noodles. 

H: Which are… so spicy. I’m still not used to it. 

SY: Last year, we offered a Korean class and study group, as well as tandem. It was all for free – people could just come, but I hoped they’d order at least one coffee! *laughs* Ironically, it was harder to find Koreans to participate than non-Koreans.

I also offered vocal lessons and we held a concert after the course was over. The teenagers’ families came. In fact, my former vocal teacher came because she loves Kpop! So that was kind. 
We throw lots of celebrations, lots of parties. It is amazing because the customers have these ideas for parties on their own. For example, the girl who painted characters on the wall came to me and said, “It’s almost Jungkook’s birthday. Can we throw a party?” And I thought, Wow, Jungkook’s birthday party? Sure! So I started researching how the Korean Fandom celebrates different artists’ birthdays and how they stay involved in general.

And now, other Kpop cafes from around the world, we’re finding each other and trying to stay connected with each other and give each other ideas. So when it was Jimin’s birthday, I asked other cafes what they planned to do. I did the same for Jin and V’s birthday. So, I have hope! I’m connecting! 

H: What is the feel of this unique place?

SY: It feels like a family here, and family style is Korean style. I’m never off doing something by myself when customers come in. When someone wants to ask me something, I am available immediately. And we involve others ideas and situations, truly and deeply. This is very Korean. 

H: Ok, last couple of questions. Favorite BTS song?

SY: It was Spring Day for a long time, but the Persona album was a turning point for them, and for me. 

H: And, V. Why is he your favorite among the BTS members?

He lives in a different dimension. 
His character, his thoughts, his behavior, his creativity, his viewpoint – he’s not a typical person. I don’t know, it’s difficult to explain. He’s focused on his feelings, and he’s not afraid to explore and explain them. He cries. He laughs. He is who is.

He’s very unique in how he states things. Like his ‘I purple you’ phrase. For his birthday celebration, I wrote ‘You can’t spell Love without V.’ Because he is that.
And his thoughts aren’t like ordinary people’s thoughts. He’s an artist. And his eye for art, like in a museum for example, is on a professional level. And as an artist myself, I mean, I envy him. I envy him. So he’s amazing to me.

My first bias was Jungkook. He’s really cute, and he has so many different faces, and he’s so pure. 

But V… V is different. 

More About KFandom Cafe 

Kamsahamnida (thank you) to Unni for taking the time to do this interview with me. It was truly an honor to hear your story and insight!

Location: Robert-Hamerling-Gasse 23/4

Hours: Tue-Fri, 1 PM – 8 PM / Sat, 12 PM – 8 PM / Sun-Mon, Closed 

Rent for Parties: Yes

Facebook/Instagram: @kfandomcafe

Latest News:

  • KFandom Cafe is about to celebrate ONE YEAR in Vienna! Congratulations, and hope to see you all at the party!
  • Follow @kfandomcafe for all updates regarding BTS’ Comeback and j-hope’s birthday

A Note to Parents:
Whether you’re in Vienna as a local or coming to Vienna for a visit, this is a great spot for your teen(s). Unni loves them dearly and is a great support to them. So, if your teen announces they’re heading out to the KFandom Cafe, know they’re safe, well-cared for, and welcomed from the heart. 

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